Off the Map

City of Bohane
Kevin Barry
Graywolf Press, $25, 288 pp.

When you open City of Bohane, you’re opening not just a novel, but a Fodor’s guide to a metropolis—an eerie, vibrant, murderous domain with its own grittily mythic lore and customs and its own apocalyptic Celtic slang. The Irish novelist Kevin Barry provides a story, too, of course—a saga of gang warfare and ruthless hoodlums vying for power and love—and he infuses it with a memorable jazzy lyricism. But it’s the alluringly seamy geography you’ll remember. With its labyrinthine tenements, shopping drag lined with soothsayers, and amputees hawking walnuts on a train-station floor, Bohane is a city so real and detailed and thoroughly mapped that it could give Dickens’s London and James Joyce’s Dublin a run for their money.

Admittedly, Bohane doesn’t exist—not yet, anyway. Barry sets his tale in the mid-twenty-first century, an era when Ireland’s western coast has devolved into settlements of savage clans. Surrounded by the unnervingly desolate Big Nothin’ bogs, the city of Bohane operates quasi-independently from what is termed the Nation Beyond. A gang called the Hartnett Fancy dominates much of the city, under the leadership of the genteel-but-brutal Logan Hartnett, who’s a mean hand with a shkelper (a kind of knife). When Hartnett’s long-exiled rival, the Gant Broderick, turns up, the stage is set for mob violence and betrayal.

Barry has done a knockout job filling...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.